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Planning Commission Certifies EIR and Preliminarily Approves Chevron Project

In a rare post-midnight meeting, the Richmond Planning Commission certified the EIR and preliminarily approved conditions for a permit for Chevron to construct what is believed to be about $1 billion of alterations to the Richmond Refinery.

The matter will come back to the Planning Commission on June 19 for finalization of technical language and approval of the conditional use permit. It is almost certain that the Planning Commission decision will be appealed to the City Council by either Chevron or someone from the community, and a new set of negotiations and political posturing will begin.

It is doubtful that the City Council will act before the August recess, throwing the final decision into the political campaign season for the November 2008 election, where five incumbents and an unknown number of new candidates will vie for three seats on a downsized City Council.

Conventional wisdom is that candidates will be torn between being “tough on Chevron” to please the voters or moderating their position to either attract anticipated Chevron monetary support or to avoid being the target of a negative campaign financed by Chevron.

Other significant political issues involving Chevron and tens of millions of dollars in revenue for the City of Richmond are also in play, including the change to the Business License Ordinance on the November ballot that could increase Chevron’s taxes by some $12 million, the property tax appeal by Chevron that continues at the Contra Costa County level, and the resolution of the City’s investigation into the amount of Utility User taxes being computed and paid by Chevron.

It should be an interesting time.

Richmond planners considers upgrades at Chevron refinery

Planners weigh new restrictions on Chevron to ease concerns about equipment upgrade

By Katherine Tam
West County Times

Article Launched: 06/05/2008 06:56:54 PM PDT


Richmond city officials slammed a restriction on the crude the Chevron refinery can process if it upgrades its equipment, a major provision that they say will ease public concerns over increased pollution and health risks.

The city's five-member Planning Commission made the decision around 12:15 a.m. Friday after more than five hours of public testimony and deliberation.

"Let's try something a bit groundbreaking and see if it flies," Commissioner Charles Duncan said. "The health of the community is at stake."

Critics, who lobbied persistently for a crude limit, broke into applause and hugged one another. Refinery representatives absorbed the news quietly in the front rows.

How much the crude cap will alter Chevron's plan to upgrade equipment will depend on how extensive it is. The commission directed the city staff to return on June 19 with legal language for a "comprehensive cap" that limits how much crude the refinery would process as well as the kind of crude.

One commissioner expressed an interest in restricting the sulfur content to 1.5 percent, a major change from what Chevron has pitched. The oil company wants to replace its hydrogen plant, power plant and reformer at its Richmond refinery to refine a wider range of crude that includes increasing the sulfur content from around 1.5 percent now to a maximum of 3 percent. The Planning Commission's vote was 3-2 with members Virginia Finlay and Jeff Lee dissenting. Finlay and Lee preferred a city consultant's recommendation to restrict the crude that runs through one piece of machinery considered to be a critical point in the refining process. Consultant Ranajit Sahu said that would accomplish the same thing as a comprehensive crude cap, but it would be easier to enforce.

Chevron 3-year-old proposal touched off public debate from the outset. Public discussion has centered mostly on whether upgrades would allow Chevron to refine more contaminated crude that some feared would increase pollution and health problems. Other issues have included greenhouse gas emissions and flaring at the refinery.

The signs that peppered Kennedy High School's multipurpose room at the Planning Commission's hearing showed the public divide. Opponents' signs declared "Don't Let Chevron Gamble With Richmond's Future" and "No Toxic Pollution." Chevron supporters, many of them employees, had a different message: "Yes for Chevron; Yes for Richmond Jobs."

Refinery representatives defended their project, saying replacing 40- to 70-year-old equipment will mean a safer and more efficient facility. They said they will continue to process light to intermediate crude. Overall emissions won't increase, they added.

Opponents want guarantees and urged officials to impose tougher restrictions. They also want the project's environmental impact report, which they say is incomplete, to be revised and recirculated.

In the end, the Planning Commission decided not to recirculate the EIR. Instead, commissioners certified the document as complete, even as they recognized it is imperfect.

They could approve a conditional use permit for the project, with a crude cap, as early as June 19.

They extracted five provisions, commonly referred to as a "community benefits agreement," from the proposed permit because they said it is unfair to require Chevron to do what other businesses aren't mandated to perform.

The five provisions would have required Chevron to give a total of $1 million a year to the city's construction training program, summer youth employment and an industrial arts training academy; create an urban forest in the city; and provide semi-annual reports to the Richmond Neighborhood Coordinating Council which is a coalition of neighborhood groups.

These "community benefits," plus a request that Chevron give land and funding to expand the Bay Trail at the edge of the refinery, will be forwarded to the City Council for consideration.

Ninety minutes before the Planning Commission meeting Thursday, dozens of protesters gathered outside around a homemade "Wheel of Misfortune" fashioned after the popular television game show "Wheel of Fortune." Concerns such as "asthma" and "global warming" appeared on the wheel in place of monetary prizes.

Rose Marie Castro, who has lived in Richmond's Atchison Village neighborhood for 10 years, spun the wheel and landed on "chronic headaches."

"The only thing we're going to have to do is take the aspirin of change," Castro said. "Change the EIR. Cap the crude."

A few Chevron supporters stood nearby. One supporter and an opponent had a verbal exchange.

Richmond planners near vote on Chevron plan

Friday, June 6, 2008

The Richmond Planning Commission was expected Thursday to vote on whether to allow Chevron to expand its Richmond refinery, a proposal that set off intense community protest over potential increased pollution from the plant.

Chevron officials want to expand their 3,000-acre refinery on Richmond's waterfront to add a new power plant and crude oil processing facility. The material processed at the new facility would have higher contents of sulfur and other impurities, city officials said.

Environmental groups including Communities for a Better Environment, the Richmond Alliance for Environmental Justice and the Asian Pacific Environmental Network have protested the plan saying it would worsen already fouled air in the East Bay city.

"The community has a right to clean air and a right to full disclosure of Chevron's project," Jessica Tovar of Communities for a Better Environment said in a statement before Thursday night's meeting.

Tovar and other activists demanded that the city conduct a more aggressive review of potential health and environmental impact from the project before approving it. Opponents said the studies to date have not adequately vetted whether the project would increase greenhouse gases and other volatile organic compounds - factors contributing to global warming.

Richmond commissioned a highly detailed environmental impact report, which concluded that the expansion would increase air pollution in a "less than significant" way.

Chevron officials have said the project "meets or exceeds" state and federal regulations.

But others, including Councilman Tom Butt, disagree with the conclusions of Chevron or city staff's recommendation to approve the project with conditions.

The commission's decision, if appealed, will go before the full City Council at a future date.

"My overarching concern is that this project is going to result in increased emissions from a refinery that already has substantial toxic emissions," Butt said in an interview Thursday. "Those need to be reduced. You add one more molecule and it's significant."

Butt said he believes the company could reconfigure its refining processes to reduce toxic emissions, which are associated with higher than average asthma rates and other respiratory diseases in Richmond and neighboring communities.

Environmental groups demanded that the city limit the amount of crude oil that is refined at Chevron and ensure that all future expansion plans are examined in public.

State Attorney General Jerry Brown's office has stepped into the debate. In March, his office wrote a letter to Richmond officials indicating that the city's environmental impact report is inadequate.

Lawyers from Brown's office said the document failed to assess the project's impact on greenhouse gases or rule out that added emissions from the new part of the plant would not be significant. Brown's office also said the city provided no evidence it would adequately monitor or enforce air quality standards.

E-mail Christopher Heredia at cheredia@sfchronicle.com.


This article appeared on page B - 11 of the San Francisco Chronicle